Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

“This is the best song I ever wrote.” So said Bob Dylan with evident pride about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” to journalist Robert Shelton in a Denver hotel room during an impromptu performance on March 12, 1966. Dylan was showing off the song and a few others (including “Positively Van Gogh” covered previously on Recliner Notes) to Shelton. Dylan was feeling boastful after writing and recording the song in the studio only a month earlier in Nashville during the Blonde on Blonde recording sessions. Kris Kristofferson was employed as a janitor by Columbia Records and was on hand for the recording of Blonde on Blonde. He recalled the night Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”:

“I saw Dylan sitting out in the studio at the piano, writing all night long by himself. Dark glasses on.”

Dylan indicated later in an interview with Jann Wenner for Rolling Stone on November 29, 1969 that the song got away from him:

“’[Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands]’ started out as just a little thing…but I got carried away somewhere along the line. I just sat down at a table and started writing. At the session itself. And I just got carried away with the whole thing….I just started writing and I couldn’t stop. After a period of time, I forgot what it was all about, and I started trying to get back to the beginning [laughs].”

After the song was completed, Dylan assembled the musicians and recorded “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” at 4 a.m.:

The song was recorded with the top, first-call, A-list musicians in Nashville. It opens with an instrumental passage that reflects the embodiment of a sound that Dylan later described to Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone in 1978:

“It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up. That’s my particular sound…Mostly, I’ve been driving at a combination of guitar, harmonica, and organ.”

Recliner Notes explored how this ideal was realized in other songs on Blonde on Blonde, but the musical feel of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” throughout its more than 11 minutes running time is the thinnest, wildest mercury of them all. The guitars, harmonica, and especially the organ provide a fluid, metallic sound that may have oozed out of time-folded refraction only understood through a science fiction novel. The music flows in and out, up and around Dylan’s vocals, building to crescendos and then softening to almost nothing once again. Dylan’s vocals have a blurry delivery, the vocal equivalent of the fogginess in one’s eyes after rubbing for longer than necessary. The result is a kaleidoscopic feel without the musicians and Dylan having to rely on the kind of fuzzed out techniques that psychedelic bands would employ in a few years after this recording. This is multicolored, hallucinatory music produced by musicians at the top of their game led by a writer who is attempting to capture beauty, time, and space at once. 

Dylan’s “thin, wild mercury” concept is not only felt in the music, but also embedded in the text with direct reference to mercury in the first line of the song: “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times.” Utilizing a nifty alliteration, Dylan introduces the song’s subject in this first line, uniting the feel of the music with the unpredictable nature of the sad-eyed lady in question. Who is she? The person who inspired the writing of the song has been disclosed by none other than Bob Dylan himself in his song “Sara” off of 1976’s Desire in which he sings:

Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin’ “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you.

The subject of “Sara” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” are one in the same: Sara Dylan, who was born Shirley Noznisky and whose name was Sara Lownds when Dylan met her. The similarity between the name “Lownds” and “lowlands” cannot be accidental. Regarding the seemingly transparent revelation in the song “Sara” — this being Bob Dylan — even a clue like that is slightly twisted since Kristofferson notes in the quote above and confirmed by many others that Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in the Nashville studio and not at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

Further linking the song to Sara through autobiographical connections are two references to metal in the lyrics:

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace

and

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row.

Many critics have pointed out that Sara’s father was a scrap metal dealer in Wilmington, Delaware. Not only are these lyrical touches referencing the subject of the song, but they also reflect the metallic feel of the music, thus binding the lyrical text of the song with the song’s musical expression.

“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is a song of exaltation, celebrating the subject’s manner and beauty through both grandeur and lust. The sensuality of Dylan’s descriptions are indisputable:

And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes

and

Your flesh like silk, and your face like glass

and

With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims

and

With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold.

The passion is apparent on Dylan’s part as he is enraptured by this woman. The chorus of the song asks two tantalizing and suggestive questions:

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The chorus of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” inspired a comic moment in Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s book On the Road with Bob Dylan. During 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue, Ratso embeds himself on the tour, befriending Sara Dylan, and questioning Dylan as much as possible. Dylan enjoys Ratso’s company to a point, but mostly treats his questions with bemusement. At one point in the book, Ratso sees an opening to ask one of his big questions and takes it:

“I’ve always wanted to know this. When you say in ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’ that ‘my warehouse eyes my Arabian drums,’ is it two distinct separate images, ‘warehouse eyes’ and ‘Arabian drums’ or is it using ‘eye’ as a verb, you know, ‘my warehouse eyes my Arabian drums.’”

Dylan is taken aback and not sure how to answer. Sara smiles and says:

“Yeah, I’ve always been curious about that, too.”

Dylan is now being interrogated about his work, specifically about one of his most enigmatic songs, by not only an annoying rock journalist nicknamed “Ratso,” but also about the song’s subject, his wife. Sloman writes:

“‘Eh, uh,’ Dylan’s at a loss for words, ‘Oh man, you always catch me at my worst, Ratso.’ He tugs Sara toward the motel.”

In 1975, Dylan didn’t have the luxury of his own website to show to Sara and Ratso that there is a comma between the “my warehouse eyes” and “my Arabian drums.”

There’s an interesting connection between “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and another long song later in Dylan’s career: “Highlands,” off of 1997’s Time Out of Mind. That song was covered earlier on Recliner Notes and, as explored in that post, Dylan utilizes the Scottish Highlands as a contrast to a regular, work-a-day life, describing it as a place of the imagination and romanticism. As discussed earlier in this post, the image of the lowlands is most likely inspired by “Lownds,” Sara Dylan’s last name when the two met. In an act of poetic transference, Dylan is evoking a distant place that could be the Lowlands of Scotland, but is much more than a specific location. Dylan describes the lowlands as a place “where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes.” This could be an allusion to bedroom politics or of the mysterious nature of the song’s subject. In both songs, Dylan is evoking a sense of place to push the listener outside the bounds of this world’s geography and instead into the realm of metaphor and poetry.

Of course, it’s hard to know what Dylan thinks of this interpretation or others as he tries to avoid providing answers, even when questioned by his wife. During the same 1978 interview noted above, Jonathan Cott asks Dylan direct questions throughout and Dylan mostly and good-naturedly fields those questions, until Cott asks, “Who understands ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’?” Dylan replies simply, “I do,” and quickly changes the subject.

The only time known that Dylan sang the song again was at the aforementioned Denver hotel room and was recorded by Robert Shelton:

In the recording, we can hear that Dylan is teaching the song to guitarist Robbie Robertson. It takes Dylan a few tries to find the correct rhythm, lyrics, and even melody. At one point Dylan says to Robertson: “Hope you’re getting the idea.” There’s a pause, and then Dylan asks, “Are you getting the idea?” Robbie’s response is unheard. At one point, Dylan even asks, “Do you want me to stop?” Eventually, he finds the words and the correct feel of the song. This rendition is not nearly as engaging as the performance of “Positively Van Gogh” on the same night. Perhaps “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was sung later in the evening when certain substances began to take hold and things weren’t quite as sharp as before. Though not meant as a public performance, it’s an important historical document to have.

“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” has an enduring influence on other musicians. George Harrison wrote in his 1980 autobiography I Me Mine that he cribbed some of the chords from the Dylan tune for The White Album’s “Long, Long, Long,” specifically “D to E minor, A and D – those three chords and the way they moved”:

The song’s composition was started during The Beatles’ visit to India in 1968, during which the only Western LP that George took along was Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Long, Long, Long” is also a song of exaltation, but instead of Dylan’s paean filled with wonder and lust, George’s composition is a song of worship. George wrote in I Me Mine that the “’you’ in ‘Long Long Long’ is God.” The song has a late night feel, but more contemplative than the bleariness of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” The spooky organ and human wail at the end of “Long, Long, Long” is closer to the haunted sound of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind rather than Blonde on Blonde.

Dylan’s vocal delivery on “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the template for the vocals utilized by Hamilton Leithauser, the lead singer of the late, great early 21st century New York City band The Walkmen. Consider the song “What’s in It for Me,” the first track off of their 2004 album Bows + Arrows:

Leithauser fully captures the blurry, out of focus aspect of Dylan’s delivery on “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”  He strains to hit notes in a similar way to Dylan, not out of a lack of vocal capacity, but rather a deliberate technique to represent the drained and weary aspect of the song’s lyrics. Leithauser sings over a fuzzy organ and a shimmering guitar: “But you don’t have to say it again, I heard you the first time.” There’s frustration and exhaustion in those words, wanting and needing for a conversation to be over. The Walkmen, not unlike Dylan, are skilled at representing the feel of a New York City diner, long after the night should have been over.

Let’s leave it to another musician, this time Tom Waits, to have the last words on the lasting impact of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”:

“This song can make you leave home, work on the railroad, or marry a gypsy. I think of a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman’s hair. The song is a dream, a riddle and a prayer.”

Image: Amedeo Modigliani, 1917, Jeanne Hébuterne with Hat and Necklace, oil on canvas, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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